I Tried to Ride a 100 Mile Bike Race and Almost Died (Here’s What I Learned)
Note from the author: This Thanksgiving, we’re all living through extraordinary times and many of us are dealing with unbelievable hardship and loss due to COVID-19. I want to share a story that I hope will inspire you to reflect and give thanks for the little things in our life, no matter how difficult circumstances may be today.
Like many members of the NMA community, I started as a runner. Then I moved into yoga, strength training, and exploring the mountains I call home in Boulder, Colorado.
But until recently, I hadn’t ridden a bike since high school.
Nonetheless, my uncle told me about a century ride for which he was organizing a team to raise money for Type 1 Diabetes research. So without much thought, I committed.
Then I learned what a century ride even was: 100 miles… on a bike I didn’t even have… with six weeks to train.
Without any other options, I did what felt the most logical at the time: dive straight into the deep end.
I bought a road bike (apparently, that’s a thing), and spent as many “hours in the saddle” as I could, learning from whatever experience the ride threw at me:
- I bonked, and had to learn about nutrition to fuel endurance training.
- I got tire flats (3 in just 10 rides, and learned to change a tire by watching youtube on the side of the road.)
- I got stung by a bee (I’m allergic), and forced myself to stay calm while I rode 20 miles back to town.
And, I fell in love with a new sport.
While training, I had clear visions of writing a blog post recapping exactly what I did and how you could too. I was psyched, passionate, and riding high.
When race day came, I started confidently, knowing that I had reached 84 miles on my longest training ride. I knew I’d finish the full 100, so I started focusing on the time and aiming to beat my best pace… I passed the 50 mile mark in less than 2.5 hours. I was on track to accomplish a sub 5 hour finish. (Nothing special for seasoned riders, but a personal goal.)
At mile 64, my race ended when I crashed, breaking my nose and eye socket bones, and impaling a plastic part of my sunglasses into my cheek.
Oh, and I exposed the bone in my nose. When I heard the EMT call for a helicopter, because the ambulance would take too long considering my condition, I was left wondering if I was going to make it home to my 1-year-old son.
Here’s what happened, what it taught me, and why more than ever, I believe failure should be your best friend…
The Setup: Training for a 100-Mile Ride in Just Six Weeks
What started as a wild idea quickly became reality when I realized I had just six weeks to train. So I figured I had two options:
- Tell my uncle that I didn’t have time to train and wouldn’t be riding with him.
- Start riding my bike as much as possible, while fulfilling my duties as a parent, with more than one job, and allowing for muscle recovery between training sessions.
I figured I’d start by testing myself with just a 20 mile ride. I had no conception of what that would even feel like, so, I figured, if I can do 20, I’ll put off quitting for a little longer.
I did the 20 (slowly), and four days later, I tried 30 miles…
And every 3-5 days, when my legs felt rested, I increased the length by 10 miles…
Before long, I was doing real mileage — 50, 60, 70 miles, and with two weeks to go before the race, I completed my final long ride of 84 miles.
I was feeling so strong and confident that I began setting goals in my mind: I wanted to finish in under 5 hours — average pace of 20 miles per hour.
And even though I had only been on the bike more or less 10 times, I felt that I could do it…
I even wrote down some tips, intending to write an NMA post that focused entirely on the training:
- Don’t try to put together your own training plan, without consulting any books, experts, or friends. You’ll miss basic tips, like “eat constantly so you don’t run out of energy and crash.” (At the time, I meant “crash” as in “bonking”, not physically crashing.)
- If you’ve never taken apart a bike, don’t wait until the night before the race to take apart your bike and try to fit it into a special shipping bag for the plane ride.
- A small amount of caffeine is great at the end of the ride.
- Start with slower-carbs (like Bobo Bars, PB&J’s, or this recipe for energy balls) earlier in the ride. Save gummies and gels for the end, if needed. It’s easier on your stomach; provides a better foundation for fueling past 50 miles; and, at the end of the race, you’re dry mouth won’t want to eat another “bar”, so sugar in drink or gummy form worked better for me.
Tip: While the whole-food plant-based solution to workout energy, Plant Bites, weren’t a thing when I tried for this race, they are now. And they’re awesome.
The Glory: When Things Go Right
Early in the race, I was learning how to ride in a peloton. I had never ridden in a group, working together to save energy as we push against the wind.
“Wind,” as it turns out, is a factor when riding a bike.
It was a blast. The person at the front of the group would push hard for 5-7 minutes, breaking the wind for all of us behind. When they were wiped, they’d peel off and line up at the back. The next rider would take the lead.
When it was my first turn, I was more than a little nervous. The guy peeled off and said, “Just keep us at a nice 23 mph.” I responded, “I don’t have an odometer, so that’s one issue. And either way, I can’t keep a 23 mile per hour pace!”
He smiled and said, “We’ve been doing 23 miles an hour this entire time…”
I had a surge of energy… which was short lived, because leading the pack is tough work! I don’t think that I lasted a full 5 minutes before the guy behind me said, “Thanks for the pull. I got it.” I probably wasn’t keeping pace…
My only other memory was a prescient one:
I thought to myself, “I’m right on the wheel in front of me — just inches away — going 20+ MPH. This peloton stuff is dangerous. If I fall, that would be really bad. Just don’t take down Glen.” (That’s my uncle, who organized 100+ riders for the day.)
The Fall: Taking Down Uncle Glen, and Nearly Taking My Own Life
Sadly, I took down Uncle Glen….
When I crashed, he was right behind me, and then went right over me. And then went to the hospital with me.
That was one of the worst parts of the entire ordeal; the other was seeing my wife’s reaction to my mangled face.
“Losing” in an (internal) competition is tough. Not finishing is generally worse. Ending in the hospital is really bad…
After my face smashed into the pavement, my first thought was, “I’m not OK. I need to call Adriana.” (My wife.)
There is a tremendous amount of blood flow going to the brain. When you hurt your head, it’s very bloody. If you’ve ever broken your nose, you know how extreme it can be.
Blood poured freely while I crawled towards the phone still attached to my bike. I somehow got enough cell signal to tell Adriana that there had been a crash. Then the call dropped. She was waiting for us at the next water station, at the bottom of the hill. When she saw an ambulance passed, she grabbed our son and followed it to the crash site.
I was conscious during the entire journey from the ambulance to the operating room. I remember saying, “Thank goodness my face was there to break my fall. Otherwise, I could have really been hurt.” Adriana didn’t think that was funny, but I got some laughs from the doctors. She stood in the OR for hours, pregnant and holding our 1 year old son, while I was on the operating table.
I’ll never forget when they rolled me past her, on the way to a CT scan to check for any number of possible injuries to my brain or other vital organs. It all got real in that instant.
For the past hour, I had been making jokes, worrying about my uncle, and hoping to get out of the hospital, because I planned to treat my face with my own natural remedies, and I hate hospitals.
But then, all of a sudden, I was heading for a CT scan and the idea of lasting damage, or death, became very real.
What if I lose vision in that eye? Or both?
What if I can’t see my son grow into a man.
What if there’s internal bleeding?
Laying in the CT machine after having just seen her terrified face, the enormity of the situation washed over me.
We take risks each day, from driving cars to riding bikes.
And when everything is good, we take so much for granted — like my eyesight, our loved ones health and happiness, and the simple joy of a giggling little kid getting tickled by his mom.
How precious life is. How precious life is.
It’s a phrase we’ve all heard so many times before, but laying in that CT machine, that’s all I could think about.
How precious life is.
If I’ve learned anything — aside from how to ride a bike 64 miles and crash — it’s how fleeting life can be and how desperately we should try to enjoy the most simple pleasures.
Every run or ride. Every smoothie, family dinner, and kid’s book.
Every time we can roll over in bed without waking up from pain, or let water rush over our faces in the shower.
(I lost much of the skin between my upper lip and hairline— on both sides of my nose, which is hard to understand how that’s possible. And with 100+ stitches, showering was a pain, literally.)
So with all the different “goops” that I lathered on each day, all I wanted to do was wash my face vigorously. I couldn’t for months… Now, nearly every day, I consciously think about how nice it feels to let the shower hit my face.
But perhaps the most simple pleasure: enjoying each moment with loved ones.
Failures and Setbacks Leave Us With Opportunities
It’s hard to believe, but in some ways, I would go through it all again to derive the perspective that I now have.
I’m grateful for the adventure — and even the scars — because without them, I wouldn’t cherish every moment the way I do now.
It’s because I failed in a grand, dangerous way that I’m left with a gift far greater than I could have ever imagined when signing up…
A new perspective and a deep appreciation for life.
And while I certainly hope you don’t have to experience a near-death event to gain some appreciation, I do challenge you to stop running from failure.
Failure leaves us with opportunity. Opportunity to grow, learn, and get better.
We’re better athletes when we learn from failed workouts, and we’re better humans when we grow from failed experiences.
So as we approach the new year, I hope this story will inspire you, just as the experience has changed and inspired me.
Savor the little moments in your own life. Laugh and love as much as you can. Give your loved ones an extra hug. Call your old friend. Let the sun hit your face (something I’m not yet supposed to do until the scars fully heal)…
And always wear a helmet.
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